The elections of Barack Obama as president of the United States and of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel are widely seen as defining moments in U.S.-Israeli relations since both took office earlier this year. But defining what? At a minimum, their taking office seems to be defining a new interest in Christian groups working in Israel.
At least six organizations that focus ministry on Israel or the Jewish people are on MinistryWatch.com's list of the 500 largest Christian ministries in the country. Contacted by WORLD, all six report that despite the economic downturn, their donations are either holding steady or are on the rise.
Gary Bauer is on the board of Christians United For Israel (CUFI). He is a former presidential candidate who has been an outspoken supporter of Israel. "Overall, there is a growing anxiety among our supporters that President Obama is leaning on Israel rather than leaning on the terrorists," Bauer said. "But that anxiety is creating an active coalition of Christians and Jews that could be a strong counterbalance to the direction Obama is moving." A spokesman for CUFI said the group does not "comment specifically about fundraising issues." However, Bauer said that the election of Obama has "spurred greater interest in churches to have events that honor Israel."
Most Christian ministries active in Israel are focused on evangelism and humanitarian relief more than on politics, said Susan Perlman, associate executive director of the San Francisco-based group Jews For Jesus. "Our focus has been on evangelizing Israel," she said. "It doesn't matter who is in power." She said that the constituency of Jews for Jesus is "not affected by the winds of politics" but is "excited by the fact that the fastest growing Jewish population in the world is in Israel." For the past half-century, the largest Jewish population in the world has been in the United States, which currently has about 5.8 million Jews. However, Perlman said, Israel now has 5.4 million and "will soon pass" the United States.
Israel is considered the only democracy in the region, and there is a thriving middle class there. But most of this growth is from immigration, and many of the Jewish émigrés don't speak the language, so there is also a large underclass. Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries, said, "What's really telling the story of Jesus' love is the direct practical support Christians are providing. Many Jewish people still lay blame for the Holocaust directly at the feet of Christianity. When Christians deliver food to elderly Russian Jews, Holocaust survivors who have come to Israel but who cannot speak Hebrew and are not integrated into the economy and the culture, you can just see the gratitude. It melts anger and bitterness."
Tom Doyle is the author of Two Nations Under God: Why You Should Care About Israel. He said that this sort of ministry might do more to solve the problems in the Middle East than either Obama or Netanyahu. "Obama is the 11th American president to try to solve the problems of the Middle East," Doyle said. "The political problems are extraordinarily difficult."
But Doyle said that the ultimate solution in Israel may not be a "two-state" solution, but a "one heart" solution. He said, "Most Muslims in the Middle East are not hardline. They're very open to the gospel. Many Palestinians and some Israelis are themselves already Christians. Former terrorists are planting Christian churches in Israel and the Middle East. If Christians will not pay attention to the mainstream media's version of what is happening-except as a reminder to pray daily for Israel and the Middle East-then it's possible that this could be the beginning of a great harvest of souls in Israel and throughout the Middle East."